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Why I'm Attending the Tar Sands Healing Walk

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In my lifetime I've lived in three very different parts of Canada. I was born and raised in Edmonton, spent my early 20s in Montreal and now lay my head on the west coast in Vancouver. Culturally, geographically and even linguistically, the differences between my homes are too numerous to list, but there is still one thing that ties them together -- the tar sands.

I've spent most of my adult life fighting climate change. Here in Canada that's meant that I've been fighting tar sands and pipelines almost as long as I've been able to (legally) drink a beer. In this time I've been lucky enough to travel all across Canada working with young climate organizers all connected by the ever-expanding network of tar sands pipelines.

Whether it's Northern Gateway, Trans-Mountain, Line 9, Keystone XL or Stephen Harper's "Nation Builder" -- the Energy East Pipeline, there are fewer and fewer places in Canada or the United States not facing a tentacle of this expansion. Add in tankers and the threat of tar sands by rail shipments and the list of places not in the tar sands cross-hairs shrinks even further. Bring in the climate impacts of expanding Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and there is no place, at home or abroad, that is outside the impact zone.

It's a scary thought -- the idea that no matter where I go in Canada, there will be something to fight. It's also a powerful one, to realize the chance we have to build a movement like this country has never seen before to end our dependence on dirty energy and boom-bust economies and transition off the path to climate disaster. It requires a choice, a choice between fear -- fear for our future, for our communities, and for our livelihoods -- and hope, the hope that the better world we imagine can become a reality.

Choosing hope requires understanding and accepting a truth that we need to stop expanding Canada's fossil fuel industry and that means the tar sands. It's a truth that we often try to avoid giving voice to, fearing that it might risk alienating some supporters. It's something that politicians in Canada avoid like the plague, but in an era of climate change, it's a bottom-line that we can't hide from forever.

That's why this June, I'm going up to the fifth and last, tar sands Healing Walk in Northern Alberta. Since 2009 people have gathered from across the Athabasca region of Alberta, and beyond to bear witness to the impacts of the tar sands in something much more than a protest. A spiritual event, these healing walks have drawn hundreds, as the organizers write, "to pray for the land, the people, and a future where the story we tell will be much different than the story we have worked so hard to tell today."

What we do in our homes and communities is important -- divestment campaigns, opposition to pipelines, building solutions and organizing to build resistance are the powerful tools to create a bigger, bolder climate movement. They're important, but they're also only part of the equation, because until we can stop tar sands expansion at the source we will be stuck in a bad remake of groundhog day -- constantly waking up to fight the same pipelines, trains and tankers over and over again.

While there are many frontlines in the fight against tar sands expansion, the tar sands are the frontline of the frontlines. They are far from where most of us live, and the experiences of those people living at ground zero are miles away from my own. They also have the most power to stop tar sands expansion in its tracks. Legal challenges from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation could not only stop tar sands developments, but could set a precedent for the power of Indigenous rights to block new tar sands capacity from ever coming online. In a world where we already know that tar sands on track to grow at least triple the size our climate can handle, it's up to all of us to stand with these communities.

But standing with these communities is about more than just strategy to defuse the carbon bomb. The land, water and air in Northern Alberta has already been devastated by the tar sands and is poised to only get worse as these projects grow. Communities depend on these basic resources to live and thrive, and the reality is that it will take decades, if not generations to recover. Years after we stop these projects, the toxic legacy will still be felt by those living on the frontlines, their children and grandchildren.

For me, travelling to Northern Alberta is about reminding myself of this fact, and about figuring out how we build connections that can support communities not just in fighting these projects -- but for transitioning away from dirty energy and for the long work of repair, rebuilding and healing the land